Republicanism in Michigan was once a mainstream model. Insiders say the party now embraces the right wing

Josh Venable, a longtime Michigan GOP operative and chief of staff to former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, can trace the arc of the state's Republican Party clearly.

"This was the state where to be Republican was defined by Gerald Ford and George Romney," Venable said, referring to the moderate former president and former governor.

Now, he said, it's defined by Mike Shirkey, the state Senate majority leader who was overheard calling the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot a "hoax"; Meshawn Maddock, the new co-chair of the state party who backed former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud; and the Proud Boys.

While the state has swung back to Democrats since Trump's narrow 2016 win, choosing President Joe Biden by more than 150,000 votes, Michigan's Republican Party has taken a hard right turn.

Its own Capitol in Lansing was the rallying point in April for armed Michigan Liberty Militia protesting pandemic restrictions, including some members who were later charged with plotting to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The rightward lurch has altered the GOP's image to one unrecognizable to its pragmatic 20th century standard-bearers, and the direction of the state party here could be an exemplar of other Midwestern battleground states. 

The move to more hard-line, extreme views in Michigan came into clearer view Wednesday when it became known that Trump devotees, no longer content with the GOP as their political home, had filed a petition with the state elections board to form a new Patriot Party. 

Decades in the making, and punctuated loudly by Trump's 2016 win, Michigan's drift from the GOP's center has prompted departures from traditional conservatives and retribution against moderates. 

It's ominous for a party that suffered defeat statewide in 2018 and 2020 and where some Republicans worry it has cost the party credibility in a place long viewed as a bulwark of Midwestern common sense.

The shift is rooted in a combination of economic dislocation caused by staggering job losses in the manufacturing sector and a cultural shift further to the right on issues like guns and abortion.

The state's economy was suffering even before the Great Recession, which only fomented working class discontent.

From 2000 to 2010, Michigan had shed more than a million jobs, more than any state, most of them in manufacturing. Many were in the automotive industry in larger metro areas. But single-factory small towns to the north also were flattened, as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the globalization it represented sparked losses that ballooned with the 2008 economic crash. 

"All these things were a catalyst," said Ken Sikkema, a former Michigan GOP Senate leader whose Grand Rapids district lost 5,000 jobs with three plant closures just before the 2008 crash. 

"This building resentment that people just didn't agree economically or culturally with the direction percolated and exploded," Sikkema said.

Traditional conservatives like Paul Mitchell and others were casualties. Mitchell, who retired from the U.S. House after two terms representing working-class eastern Michigan, later quit the GOP and assigned responsibility for the Jan. 6 riot to Trump, for whom he voted twice.

Michigan's two Republican congressional moderates, Fred Upton and Peter Meijer, have been censured by county party committees for voting to impeach Trump. 

On Tuesday, the GOP committee in Cass County, Upton's home, sided with Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia over Upton, who voted with Democrats this month to strip Greene of her committee assignments for suggesting, among other debunked theories, that mass school shootings were false flags.

"In their resolution, they stated that `her comments have not been out of line with anyone else's comments,"' Upton, a 34-year incumbent, posted on Twitter on Wednesday about the Cass County GOP. "Really?"

Meijer, elected last year, said the party will continue to lose supporters if they celebrate and encourage its hard-right elements.

"If we're strictly a litmus test party, we're going to drum out some of the people we need to be able to win competitive elections," Meijer said. 

Though the ascendance of the right in the party became starkly clear in the last year, there have been other signs of the direction Republicans were heading.

In 2012, outspoken social conservative state Rep. David Agema surprised party regulars by ousting longtime establishment Republican Saul Anuzis as national committeeman. 

Former Gov. Rick Snyder, Gateway Inc.'s former CEO, fit the change theme of 2010, but his moves to tax pensions, expand Medicaid under the 2010 federal health care law and spend $617 million to bring Detroit out of bankruptcy drew a backlash.

Snyder, who campaigned against partisanship, all but ignored the political spadework of building the party as his predecessors had done. The resulting vacuum provided a stage for figures such as Maddock to seize.

"Forces of nature take over at that point, and those forces were definitely tilting right, extreme far-right," said Venable, who was state Republican Party chief of staff in 2010.

The void ceded space to right-wing extremism and allowed a relationship with Republican leaders and Michigan's long-active militia to develop.

Maddock was a Trump delegate to the 2016 national GOP convention but took on a more prominent role in 2020 with the national Women for Trump Committee. 

She helped organize the April protest in Lansing, where militia brandished rifles in the Capitol, and she later posted images from the event of Whitmer altered to resemble Adolf Hitler. 

Maddock also helped organized Michigan's 19-bus delegation to Washington last month to protest the 2020 election results. Though Maddock spoke at the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 5, she said she was absent from the deadly U.S. Capitol siege that followed Trump's speech on Jan. 6. 

Nodding to the emerging right wing, Michigan GOP fundraiser Ron Weiser invited Maddock to share the ticket for his bid to become state party chair. Weiser was elected chair, and Maddock his No. 2, on Feb. 5. 

All the while, Michigan's GOP leadership has for the first time in memory bestowed legitimacy on its state's militia, long relegated to the shadows. 

Weeks after the April demonstration in Lansing, Shirkey, the state Senate majority leader, accepted an invitation to meet with militia leaders after they sought him out for calling some of the Capitol protesters "jackasses."

Days later, Shirkey pressed a crowd of militia in Grand Rapids to remain vigilant.

"We need you now more than ever to continue to train," he told the group in Grand Rapids, urging them "to stand up and test that assertion of authority by government." 

The embrace of the militia reflects a jarring shift for these right-wing, paramilitary groups from the fringe to the center of the GOP power centers.

"These people had always been marginalized, but you've got leaders in the party enabling their behavior now," said Mitchell, the retired former Republican congressman. "It's a total pendulum swing."